Urban Soundscaper: Velanche Stewart Broadcasts Deep Soulful Beats

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Velanche is the host and producer of Urban Landscapes, the weekly radio broadcast showcasing jazzy and soulful club culture from around the world. The show dives into nu-jazz, broken beat, rare funk, soul, house, downtempo, and related variants thereof.

Launched in January 1998, the show has evolved from its humble beginnings of ambient, downtempo and trip-hop sounds, evolving into its current form.

Velanche has been with KCPR, the college radio station of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, since September 1997. He was also the RPM Director for the station for four years, as well as the alumni director. He has hosted other shows, and is currently co-host of Club 91, a weekly live dance mix show.

Velanche’s work with Urban Landscapes has earned a respectable following. He has profiled and/or interviewed a number of artists and producers, including Jonathan Moore from Coldcut, Jason Swinscoe from the Cinematic Orchestra, Martin Iveson aka Atjazz, Gilb’r of Chateau Flight (and founder of Versatile Records), Chris Vogodo from Zero dB (and co-founder of Fluid Ounce Records), The Angel, members of Bugz in the Attic, members of the Gonkyburg crew (Swell Session, Ernesto, Mimi Terris, and others), and Magnus Zingmark from Koop among others.

In 2011 Velanche will be releasing some of his own productions in addition to representing the best urban sounds to his local and global audience. MundoVibe chatted with Velanche via e-mail last summer.

MundoVibe: Velanche, your involvement in radio and in promoting urban music on Urban Landscapes stretches back a number of years. What has kept you so inspired to maintain the program, which surely must be a challenge?

Velanche Stewart:  Several factors have been influential in keeping the show going. For one thing, the fact that I have so much support from labels, artists, producers and promo folks from around the world has been, and still is, very crucial. There absolutely would be no radio show without them, because I feel that their support gives the show added weight in terms of being a legitimate outlet for underground music.

Another is the fact that I actually do record the live show from a radio station (and put them online later). I’m very fortunate and grateful that I’ve been allowed the opportunity to carry the show live from KCPR here in San Luis Obispo, which in its own rights is a terrific university station. The station, in of itself, is also a forerunner for finding and sharing new music that would otherwise go missing under the radar. I thought that I’d had to give it up after I graduated from the university, but I’m still doing it today.

Finally, it’s the love and excitement of the music. It’s been said that good music is really hard to find, but somehow it continues to come my way. Some lament the passing of nu jazz, broken beat, and down tempo, but those sounds haven’t totally gone away. Like all things, music has to be allowed to change and mutate into a variety of different forms and textures, and I’ve been willing and eager to follow such changes in the hopes that fresh infusions of creativity will continue to breathe life into music.

MV: Indeed a lot of great music does come your way and you turn your listeners onto material they might otherwise not hear, especially in the States. You program a wide variety of urban sounds, many of which are underground or new and emerging genres. What is the theme that unites the music you select?

Velanche: Without question, for me the unifying threads that bind, for me, are soul and jazz. I’m forever a soul boy, having grown up during my childhood and adolescent years listening to soul, funk and ballads on the radio. These genres formed the basis for everything that came after that.

In the early 1980’s, I gravitated toward KROQ, a radio station in Southern California which, at the time, broke new ground by introducing many of us to new wave, as well as music that’s now considered “alternative” to the mainstream audience. It was a shift for me, and really opened me up to other kinds of music. And really, a lot of the music on that station have, directly or indirectly, been influenced by soul music. But this time it was the European influence, which, I’d learn later, has been, and continues to be, some of the best risk-takers out there, music-wise.

From that time onward, and really during my entire life of immersing into music, I’ve developed an intuitive feel for what moves me. I could go on and on about that, but at the heart and the essence of it all it’s soul and jazz that’s the glue.

The funny thing about jazz was that I never knew that the music I’ve listened to back in the day was jazz; it was definitely jazz fusion, but I have thought of them as soul instrumentals without giving it a lot of thought. I knew they sounded good, but I never even knew about the Mizell Brothers until acid jazz and nujazz found me later. Also, I could never get into acoustic jazz for many, many years. Then after moving here to San Luis Obispo, to make a long story short, I’ve heard a jazz show on the public radio station here with a great DJ who seemed not only knowledgeable, but the jazz he played (mainly from the late 1950’s and through the 1960’s) was soul, and finally acoustic jazz clicked. It turns out that the jazz I tried listening to was pretty sanitized. The whole thing was a revelation to me. I still have a great deal to learn about the music, but jazz, along with soul, is for life.

MV: So, jazz and soul are the core of Urban Landscapes. Do you view yourself as an educator of sorts or perhaps a guide to new sounds for your listeners? 
Velanche: I view myself, first and foremost, as a music enthusiast, in that when music excites and move me, I’m one who enjoys sharing the sounds with others. I do feel that I’m more of a guide than an educator; I’m a very intuitive person, and my intuition for finding good music is something I do embrace. It’s not a stretch at all that, to me, music is very much a spiritual journey, and I always hope that no matter what direction I tend to go, that listeners are willing to follow my lead. They may learn something new, and therefore can educate themselves about the music, or the artist, or the label, or whatever is of interest to them.
I’m sure that I educate to some degree, but I see myself less of that because I know that there are people in the scene with far more knowledge than me. I am aware that others see me as a resource, which is one thing that’ motivates me to stay connected, find information relevant to the scene, and share such information with like-minded music lovers. It’s an extension of what I do on the show, because I’m so into what I’m doing during the broadcast that I often don’t have the requisite artist bio or history in front of me when I go on the air. In any event, I’m learning to consolidate such information, which I hope will atract more people who may consider exploring this wonderful music scene of ours.

MV: The music scene that you identify with is spread out globally and encompasses many genres within your greater themes of jazz and soul. Since we are all scattered about the planet, do you see this scene not really geographically oriented but more a community of fans and producers of certain styles of music? With this in mind, how does a scene become united outside of its “virtual” existence? For example, how relevant is where you are based to what you are programming?

Velanche: I do see the scene as a loose connection of creatives from around the planet with a common bound, which is that we’ve somehow been touch, in some way, by black music of the 1960’s and 1970’s, either directly or indirectly. We’re also restless and discontent with what’s been fed to the masses, for we know that there’s music with a spiritual connectedness that is far greater than any one individual. That said, depending on where people live it can be challenging to support this niche scene. Dare I say that it can feel like a solitary experience when it comes to promoting and supporting these talented people. Still, the people in this scene are extremely passionate about quality music, and I think it comes through in the way they express themselves.

Geographically, it can be a challenge. I’ve spoken with artists who told me that when they travel overseas, they are greeted far more warmly than they do in their own home town. I can only imagine how disheartening it can be, but I think that with the advent of the Internet those barriers to entry are continuing to be knocked down. I think that you are only limited by both your imagination, and by how one measures up against the insanely talented artists and producers who are part of this scene. They might not be known that well in their back yard, but there are people out outside their immediate area, including other countries, that may see such talents as a breath of fresh air.

On how to unite a scene outside a “virtual” existence, that’s a good question. I think that the people involved with promoting the scene in metropolitan and suburban areas can perhaps answer this one better than me. I live in a mostly university town, with the surrounding areas in the county being mainly conservative, in comparison with, say, Los Angeles and San Francisco. So if we are talking about developing and fostering an actual scene with live events and DJ’s, sure there are such entities in this city. But more often than not, it’s local bands, retro bands, indie bands, but not much really on the soul front, with the exception of reggae.

As for programming, that’s also interesting. I know that there isn’t a radio show like mine in this county. The closest ones are a couple of soul shows and two jazz shows on KCPR. There’s also the public radio station here, KCBX, which I feel is set in its ways and hasn’t really expanded its musical pedigree outside of its core genres…jazz, classical, bluegrass, blues and the like. KCPR also has such shows, but I think that KCBX tends to stay on the “safe” side to, presumably, appease to its members donors with whom, the station presumes, wouldn’t be interested in a show like Urban Landscapes. That station also has a weekly soul show, a daily jazz show, and a few other nighttime jazz-related shows, which are all the closest thing to what I play. But most of the labels know that I’m the only one in my area, and in some cases the only one in the West Coast, playing the music. I don’t think it’s as much about one’s geographical location much as it is about the network, or community, was built, how the show’s been structured, what the quality of the music and the labels featured on the show are, and the hows of reaching out to an international audience. Connection is key, no question.

MV: Well, you are definitely serving a niche that deserves being addressed and it’s unfortunate that more public stations don’t step out of their safer programming which, as you’ve noted, often caters to their subscriber base which tends to lean toward traditional definitions of music. Thankfully we have the internet and streaming audio, which has broken down so many barriers. With your audience being international, how do you then go about selecting the music to program? Do you ever think, ‘will they like this in Tokyo, London and San Francisco?’ 
Velanche: My selection process is based mainly on the promos that I’ve received and/or obtained within a given time frame, usually within a week or two of airtime. Once I look at what I have and what I’ve listened to, I have a scattered palette mentally of what’s available. I try and at least have some idea of what tune I’d like start the week’s show with, but otherwise I do things very freestyle. I think getting the albums and EP’s together is the closest thing I do toward planning out what I’ll play on a given show, and when I’ll play it. Really, it’s a process that comes to me naturally, and I go by the feel and tone of the tracks; that is, I go by flow and instincts. Sure, I do pay attention to the artists, and maybe some choice producer doing a remix, for instance, and I do my best to keep genres together as best I can. In the end though, I ask myself “Does this feel good?” I’m a very intuitive person, and I allow that intuitiveness to carry on into throughout the show.
More often than not, I’m pleased enough with the end results of what I’ve record that, even after dong the final edits before putting the show online, I will listen to the show several times before the next one. I do my best to take things in, find out what works and what doesn’t, that is true. More often than not, though, I too am a listener, enjoying the show myself and hearing what everyone else is hearing. I don’t quite get that when I’m actually on the air as the show’s recording, which in of itself is a different sort of feeling for me when I do it that way. A good feeling, but at that point I’m involved with constructing the show live over the radio waves, painting the music on my musical canvas.
I consider myself a global citizen, in a figurative sense, in that I feel that I’m very international in terms of what I feel for the world and for people. In that sense, I don’t really think of “Will this country, or this city, like my show,” though I very much would like to have my show listened to in as many cities and countries as possible.
Even though the music scene borrows quite a bit from stateside music, it’s great when creatives from other countries both embrace the musical influences of the United States, and incorporate their own regional music elements into the mix. Of course, there are other countries like Africa and Australia and South America and Japan that have their own roots music, and some of those elements can be found in the music featured on my show, as well as in the music that producers are creating.
Also, I can’t discount my stateside brothers and sisters. There’s incredible music being made here that, for the most part, remains underground. I think it would be great if this special music were not so underground so that stateside people can experience what they are missing. I feel that with streaming radio and online music stores, among other places, the barriers have started to break down so that the music can have a wider reach, giving people a great variety of choice with the types of music that they will gravitate towards and, ultimately, help support the artists by way of buying their music, or attending a live show or DJ set. I’m sure this is also potential wish fulfillment for other cities around the world, too.
MV: In the years you’ve been producing Urban Landscapes you’ve undoubtedly seen musical genres get hyped and then fade away, as well as artists. Are there any genres or artists in particular that you feel you may have helped break, or at least be recognized?
Velanche: Well I wouldn’t quite say that I’ve broken genres, though I’ve known at times that there are labels for whom I’m the only show on the West Coast of the U.S., or even stateside period, to play some of the music that can be heard in clubs and on radio in other countries. I think if I’ve broken anything really, it’s mainly for the stateside and local listeners. Certainly, the sounds of West London with creatives such as Bugz in the Attic, Mark de Clive-Lowe, 4Hero, and IG Culture, among others, brought about a freshness in music like I haven’t experienced in a long time. Nujazz, a derivative of the acid jazz movement, also was very exciting and fresh. Also in the mix was 2-step, popularized by MJ Cole and others, and its cousin dubstep, which at the time was far different than what it is now. Club jazz was another thing, too; I really dig the Japanese club jazz, and hope springs eternal that I’ll one day play more of that on my show. But then there’s also Schema and Ricky-Tick, among others, putting forth some amazing jazz from the present and the past. Again, I haven’t kept up with what I’ve broken in per se, but there aren’t many stateside places showcasing such music. I’d like to see that change.
Regarding artists, I seem to have developed a good connection with them, though it’s usually by email communication. Now that I’ve just gotten high-speed Internet in my home, I plan to step up and hopefully have some more communications via phone and online, through online and video chat.
In any event, I believe I’ve broken in artists first on my show with really fresh music who have found me via Myspace, or Soundcloud, or through other means. I’m hesitant to call them out publicly only because I haven’t asked them for permission, but in addition to those people there are others who are fans of my show, and of course I’m very grateful for that.
If there are artists that I think could use a bit of a push, there’s a talented lady in Vienna who goes under her band’s name of Fleur; very much a bit of melodic jazz fusion that’s been quite good. Also from Vienna is an outfit called Certain Subjects who make some great broken soul. Sweden’s Opolopo continues to really give some groovy, bassy, broken vibes (though not always broken). RightKindaWrong, whom I’ve first heard on Simon Harrison’s Basic Soul Show (UK-based show), has some very good neo- and future soul whose production and vocalists are top-notch. Yvonne Ellis, who’s produced music for Simply Red and Swing Out Sister back in the day, helms that project, and to me it’s been slept on big. And Jazzreloaded was a similar project that I also felt was slept on. I’m sure there are others, but these are the people that stand out in my mind, at the moment.
MV: Is your studio setup geared to digital music or do you work with all formats?And since there are so many means of distributing your content, which do you use?
Velanche: I have a digital setup: a iMac desktop, a M-Audio Keystation Pro 88, a Tascam FireOne audio/MIDI controller, and a pair Ecler headphones, as well as a pair of Tapco S-8 monitors and a pair of M-Audio Studiophile AV40 speakers. I have Ableton on my machine at the moment, and soon will have Logic 9.

It’s taken me awhile to get there due to fits and starts with time and the like. I’m slowly working my way into things, but just getting back into the learning stage. It’s going to take awhile before I have something of meaning. I’d like to think that if I can think it, I can make it in terms of translating what I’m thinking into whatever music will materialize. I’ve had to put things off for months, and it’s only recently that I’ve just gotten back into the learning, and sooner or later the creating will have to start.

I want to learn from the best, and I have some really cool people, many of whom I highly admire and respect, given me advice along the way. I will be asking for more as I start to actually create, and I’m very appreciative that these people are available for guidance, advice and encouragement. I’m grateful just for that, so I know now, more than ever, that it really is up to me.

I haven’t done much in terms of music production, I’m a ways off from even thinking about content distribution. Once I’m able to get over the hurdles that I need to maneuver through, then I’ll know what my options will be for the next steps.

MV: Well, good luck with the productions and we’ll definitely be looking forward to hearing them. With this in mind, it seems like there are more possibilities than ever for DJs, producers and radio hosts. For example someone like Gilles Peterson has build a multi-faceted careers doing all of these things. Who has inspired you and influenced you in this respect?

Velanche:  I’ve certainly been influenced by a number of DJ’s and radio stations throughout the years. I will always be a soul boy at heart, so black radio in L.A. during the 1970’s laid the foundation for all other influences. During the days of KROQ in L.A. through the 1980’s, DJ’s such as Richard Blade, Freddy Snakeskin and the Swedish Egil were heavy in terms of moving me into eclectic, alternative, leftfield territory; it was such a creative period that I’ve embraced wholeheartedly. Then just before I moved to San Luis Obispo to transfer to university, a station called MARS FM had some of the more creative ex-KROQ DJ’s giving listeners a full-on dose of what they called techno, but it was actually acid house brought to the states. Again like KROQ, no one else was playing it in the Southern California area, and it felt really special.

Around the same time that I was into MARS FM, I was listening to KCRW, now a world-famous public radio station. In the late 1980’s, I was listening to Deirdre O’Donoghue’s show SNAP (very eclectic electronica/pop/dance), then other shows there like Jason Bentley’s Metropolis (dance) and Bruno Guez’s Shortwave (ambient, downtempo, experimental) took me down creative paths that kept me up late nights. Then Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide aired there, and I was so taken aback by his freestyle selection, and the way he blended them in like weekly mixtapes with a hodgepodge of music from all over the place. He definitely inspired me to do radio, but it would be years before I’d do it.

During university, I found an online radio show called Into Somethin’, hosted by Theo Thoennesen and Florian Keller. I have to say that along with Gilles Peterson, Florian Keller was one of my modern radio heroes with his take on the freestyle goodness. Even though his show was very eclectic, it was the first radio show where if there were tunes that he could blend in and beatmatch, he would do it. I never heard anything like that before, and have never known about DJ culture up to that point, so that was very fresh to me.

I also have to give props to Jimm Cushing, a KCPR DJ who hosts a jazz show before mine. He started the show at the public radio station here, and somehow I’ve found his show one night while listening to the station. He had two things going: one, he has the kind of radio voice, demeanor and stature that I wanted, plus he is a walking encyclopedia of jazz knowledge, and I mean the soul influenced jazz from Coltrane to Davis to Adderley. His show was the first jazz show I’ve listened to that really helped deepen my appreciation for acoustic jazz, next to Gilles’s show. I’m very grateful for that.

As for producers, I’d say that the Jazzanova crew really have ears for quality production, right down to the way the music is mastered, which I appreciate very much. The Bugz in the Attic crew and IG Culture also have really good ears, as do Seiji, Mark de Clive-Lowe, 2 Banks of 4, Masters at Work and many of the club jazz folks on labels like Schema, Ricky-Tick and Especial. That may be too much, and there are more that would be too numerous to add to the list, but it just feels as if I’m spoiled with riches in terms of quality music from artists and producers who really are passionate and dedicated about what they do, and enjoy doing what they love. It’s the kind of music that keeps refreshing itself, and I’m very lucky to somehow feel that every year is a good music year.

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